Friday, June 24, 2011

40 Days of Yoga for Novices and Beginners: Be Not Afraid

The history of yoga stretches back perhaps as far as the 3rd millennium BC (we are not sure of the date because it is just that old), so I will not dare to compare my personal story of yoga discovery with the practice's lengthier and assuredly less embarrassing history. But the tale of how the world's least flexible person came to practice yoga is simply one that must be told.

By now you know that I am embarking on a yoga-filled 40-day journey to "personal revolution" along with Claudine. Readers who know me well have at this point received the news with well-deserved shock and moved onto the you-must-be-joking head shake. Readers who do not know me well can take me on my word: I am about the least likely person ever to attempt, complete, or enjoy a yoga class (see: world's least flexible person). My current 40-day trip into the desert is a welcome challenge to myself to commit to giving yoga a chance after trying it, giving up on it, and cursing it in the process a number of times.

My first exposure to yoga was on my high school swim team. My coach decided to throw in some yoga with our stretching and "dry land" conditioning routine. I welcomed the yoga as a distraction and potential way out of more grueling time in the pool. Not much was learned or accomplished by anyone during these yoga sessions, however, given the wisecracking and joking around. Teaching yoga to a group of teenage boys is like, well, teaching anything to a group of teenage boys.

My college water polo coach again tried to introduce yoga into our cool down routine (what is it with aquatics coaches and yoga?), but this was a failed mission all over again as we rushed through poses at the end of practice to be first to hit the locker room and get to dinner.

Years later, Claudine brought me to a handful of yoga classes as she began practicing with increasing regularity. About once a year I would tag along, bathed in blissful ignorance after forgetting my previous experiences. Each time I would endure a version of hell (it was, after all, always a sweaty "hot yoga" class) accented with "om" chants and the smell of patchouli. I generally disliked the classes other than the part where you get to rest and basically take a nap near the very end. I lacked any kind of flexibility or knowledge of the proper technique or form. I felt foolish and uncomfortable, especially in an atmosphere of new-agey yoganess that, along with the gender ratio in class, made me feel slightly emasculated. But each year I went back for my annual reminder: I was not a yoga person and I did not like yoga.

Here in Nepal, due for another annual taste, I gave yoga a shot again. It was different this time. I think it helps that we practice yoga at home here, so I no longer have to feel self-conscious about my form and flexibility (or lack thereof). Also, the options for traditional gyms are quite lacking here in Kathmandu, and the streets are not very conducive to recreational running -- without my traditional crutches of weightlifting and running, yoga was a good candidate for the physical activity I eagerly craved.

The more I gave it a chance, the more I liked it. In the past, one reason I discounted yoga was that I failed to see it as a "real" workout. In retrospect, this was probably because I was using improper form and not trying very hard. With a bit of commitment and concentration, I now find the classes challenging and as tough and rewarding as any weightlifting session or run I knew in the past. This, coupled with improvement and some visible results, has me returning to yoga in Nepal and actually a bit excited about this 40-day experiment. And I am learning what a new friend, Yoga Dan, once shared with me as I griped after one of my old hellish yoga sessions in the States: "It doesn't take flexibility. It's not about the flexibility at all, man."

Yoga Dan happened to be a bearded, tattooed, 6'7" former professional basketball aspirant badass (and fellow Michigander), so when he talked, you listened.

Yoga Dan (photo credit:

And he is right -- it's not about the flexibility (though I'm still working on it and now consider myself the world's fourth least flexible person). It is also not all about the workout. If they weren't such pacifists, yoga purists would kill me for saying that I internally eye roll when I hear some of the dogma and deeper teachings surrounding the practice of yoga. On the other hand, my friends will probably punch me for admitting that some of this stuff resonates, and at the very least a yoga session leaves me as relaxed and clear-headed as any other kind of exercise I have tried. For all of the skeptics out there: don't knock it till you try it.

As I come to the end of this story (just barely shorter than yoga's history on earth), that is my final word of encouragement to anyone curious about yoga but hesitant to give it a real shot -- keep an open mind and just try it. For the inflexible: it's not all about the flexibility. For the gym monkeys: done right, it is an amazing full-body workout. For the jaded turned off by the yoga mysticism babble: find a teacher who tones it down and keeps the mood light. For the men who think it's just for chicks: I dare you to say that to Yoga Dan's face.

Now that I have begun my mid-summer, yoga-themed Lent, I will have a chance to give yoga a serious try to see if it really sticks with me. Perhaps the next 40 days is just the beginning of the tale. Stay tuned.

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